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Heritage Sites (Halesowen)

Volume 519: debated on Tuesday 23 November 2010

It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship for the first time today, Mr Rosindell.

At first glance, the debate seems specific to my constituency of Halesowen and Rowley Regis. However, potentially wider implications regarding the role of English Heritage should become clear and might well require further investigation.

People in Halesowen are proud of their cultural heritage and are concerned about one particular site of historic interest, which I want to talk about in some detail, as it illustrates some of the wider points that I want to make in the debate.

Halesowen abbey has been an intrinsic part of the heritage of Halesowen since it was founded nearly 800 years ago, in 1215. It was used as a monastery until the 16th century, when it was closed down by Henry VIII. The site was later granted to Sir John Dudley, the Duke of Northumberland, before being sold to the Lyttleton family in 1558. It later descended to Lord Cobham, who sold it to the current owner in 1993. A number of impressive tiles from the abbey are now held in the British Museum. The County Express, on Saturday 3 August 1938, reported a major archaeological find at the site. Many local people and the Halesowen Abbey Trust, which has been influential in looking after the site, are convinced that there are other archaeological deposits on the site of major historical significance.

The abbey is, under law, a scheduled ancient monument of national importance, which comes with certain implications that I will touch on later. The abbey was first classified with such significance in the early 20th century. Since 1950 it has also been a grade I listed building due to its special architectural and historic interest. The abbey is, evidently, not just another old building, but rather a demonstrably iconic piece in the Halesowen historical jigsaw.

Concern has been expressed on decisions about the site over a long period of time. Since 1993 many local people and groups have expressed concern that changes at the site have run roughshod over planning law and local opinion in Halesowen, even choosing to ignore and contradict the stipulations laid down by the Secretary of State in 1995, when giving scheduled monument consent. At that time, rather than knocking down an outbuilding, as approved by the Secretary of State, an extension was built on to an existing building.

I have no personal animus towards the current owner of the site, but several retrospective planning permissions have been applied for on multiple occasions, and the local group the Halesowen Abbey Trust argues that lasting damage has been caused, for example through repeated unauthorised tipping, to this site of national significance. As a consequence, there has been a substantial drop in the number of visitors to the site, from around 1,800 visitors in one weekend alone in 1989 to the temporary ending of public access in 2001. Furthermore, in spite of poor upkeep, when the site was opened for a three-day period earlier this year, more than 500 people visited, illustrating the importance of the site to local people and those from the surrounding area.

English Heritage itself has, on a number of occasions, observed the poor condition of the site, reporting

“broken glass, barbed wire, bricks, pieces of steel piping, fallen roof tiles and beer barrels”

among the reasons for a failure to open the site and as a general comment on its deterioration. English Heritage has also accepted that the unauthorised works that went on might have damaged buried archaeological artefacts.

As I said, I do not hold any personal animus towards the current owner, and it is up to the development control committee of the local authority to determine whether the current owner has the best intentions of Halesowen at heart when it considers his planning application. It will be for the committee to decide whether the conversion of a number of abbey outbuildings and barns into residential properties offers any improvement to the site—I understand that, last night, the most recent application for the barn conversion was accepted and passed by the development control committee.

As a result, it is absolutely imperative that English Heritage plays a proactive role in the future of the site, and that it answers some important questions about its role in the future preservation and development of this important historical site. What monitoring and level of active interest will English Heritage now exercise as a consequence of the decision? Will it oversee necessary archaeological work? Will it conduct impromptu site visits, to ensure that access is properly available? Will we be able to see a report of what was found during the development? What level of public visiting does English Heritage envisage in the future?

There are significant question marks over the role of English Heritage in the whole saga. Supposedly, its role is regularly to monitor scheduled monuments such as Halesowen abbey and to ensure that they are conserved or enhanced if conservation work is undertaken. However, I would question the ability of English Heritage properly and regularly to monitor the sites put into its care and its efforts to act upon any unauthorised material changes to historical sites such as Halesowen abbey.

At this point, Mr Rosindell, I should make you aware that Stonehenge has the same statutory protection as Halesowen abbey. Therefore, the role of English Heritage at Halesowen abbey, upon which I will expand, has potential implications for the heritage of ancient sites across the UK.

English Heritage has had unrivalled access to Halesowen abbey, through its statutory rights under law. In spite of that, it took a third party, the Halesowen Abbey Trust, to notice and report unauthorised works by the current owner. Indeed, the trust noticed that the works were of

“sufficient magnitude for them to be clearly visible from a considerable distance outside of the scheduled area, with the naked eye”.

The Halesowen Abbey Trust also helpfully informed me that English Heritage offices are based in Colmore row, Birmingham, which is just a 20-minute bus journey away from the site in Halesowen. Such material facts call into question the ability of English Heritage, in its current guise, effectively to operate and protect our national heritage, and illustrate an apparent lack of commitment and will to protect this particular site.

When the first instance of unauthorised work at the site occurred in 1996, English Heritage and the local council chose not to use the legal and practical means at their disposal to seek any meaningful move to restoring the site to its state before the unauthorised work. The local authority decision was made in a particular context, which involved an attempt to take the site forward in co-operation with the new owners. At the time, a number of assurances were made in good faith that there would be no repetition of such unauthorised works. As the Minister will understand, the Halesowen Abbey Trust was somewhat surprised in 2005 when English Heritage took the same position on further unauthorised work.

As far back as 1996, English Heritage wrote to the local press explaining that it had been unable to uphold its statutory functions because it lacked the necessary resources. If English Heritage is saying now that it has neither sufficient resources to protect our heritage from unauthorised works, nor the will to take appropriate action against those undertaking such works, there are some serious questions about its role and validity in this case. Although English Heritage survived the recent review of quangos by the Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General, there is an argument for saying that that might, in some respects, have been slightly fortuitous.

English Heritage has made a number of decisions about the abbey that could be construed, at best, as very surprising and, at worst, as bizarre and lacking any credibility, and I want to give one illustration. The current owner built an unauthorised 2.3 metre high wall on the site, citing the need for a flood barrier. When the retrospective planning application was put before English Heritage and the Environment Agency in October 2002, it was noted that the constructed wall would

“not provide any flood defence to the buildings”,

and both bodies advised that the planning application should be refused. Yet just months later, in August 2003, both organisations decided to approve a retrospective planning application on the basis that the wall would be reduced from 2.3 to 1.5 metres. That change would not of course make any material difference to the flooding issue that was originally cited. However, the creation of the wall leaves the monument and its setting damaged in perpetuity.

Halesowen abbey is not the only heritage site that is being poorly maintained in my constituency. The Ice house, which was built in the late 18th century and which is located in close proximity to Halesowen abbey, was given grade II listed building status last year. However, it has been vandalised on a number of occasions, and little has been done to protect and maintain it. Although Halesowen has a long history of heritage, there are few sites, and residents in Halesowen and the surrounding area are rightly concerned and angry about the deterioration of a number of them and want action to be taken. Constituents have written to me, and others have spoken to me directly, to express their unhappiness. I am therefore grateful that the Minister is here to address some of my points, and I have some specific questions for him.

What ability and competence does English Heritage have in terms of upholding laws and regulations relating to ancient and historical monuments such as Halesowen abbey and surrounding sites? Would a significant change to an historic site, such as the conversion of nearby outbuildings to residential use, represent a material deterioration, conservation or an enhancement to such a site? Would the Minister support a decision by English Heritage not to take action against the owner of an historic site for breaking the law on the basis that it wanted to avoid upsetting the owner? Will the Minister consider introducing an independent review of the current legislation on, and role of, regulatory bodies in respect of heritage sites of national significance?

The people of Halesowen want the proper preservation and enhancement of their sites of historical interest. They are concerned by the ongoing deterioration of such sites and by the apparent lack of will on the part of public agencies to preserve them. I look forward to hearing from my hon. Friend, and I thank him once again for being here to engage in this important debate.

Let me echo the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Halesowen and Rowley Regis (James Morris) by saying that this is my first opportunity to serve under you on one of these occasions, Mr Rosindell, and I am sure that it will be a pleasure. I saw you running the previous debate with military efficiency, so I am sure that we will make good progress in this one, too.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on gaining this debate and on setting out his case so clearly. He has made it clear to everybody here that Halesowen has elected a doughty champion for local people, who is willing to fight for local issues and to take them right the way to debates in the Houses of Parliament, when necessary. Heritage is not everybody’s cup of tea, but my hon. Friend has shown that he is willing to engage with issues right across the breadth of political discourse, and I congratulate him.

I will endeavour to respond to my hon. Friend’s points one by one in order, because he asked some quite specific questions. Before I begin that detailed response, however, I should say that if my hon. Friend hears anything in my response that, on further reflection and after discussion with local constituents, he wants to come back to me on, I am of course at his disposal. He can write to me, or we can have a conversation, if there are any points to follow up after the debate.

It might be helpful if I give a small amount of background about the site. My hon. Friend rightly said that it is quite a complicated site. On frequent occasions, it has been quite messy, and all sorts of different layers of usage have built up during its long history. Most recently, it has been quite a hard-working agricultural area, so the site has been used as a farmyard and a working area for quite some time. He is therefore right that the site has been messy, but he will understand that although everyone would obviously like all parts of the country to be beautiful, gorgeous and well maintained, the important issue from the point of view of English Heritage and the Government is whether the heritage has been damaged for future generations and whether the public has access, albeit messy access. Those are the crucial points that he is driving at, and I shall try to confine my remarks to the thrust of his questions.

My hon. Friend asked some quite specific questions about the controls that English Heritage may or may not exercise with regard to the development process. As he said, the local authority, in its planning authority role, gave permission just yesterday for the proposed developments to go ahead. He is absolutely right that English Heritage will expect to maintain quite close scrutiny of the development process for a monument of this importance and seniority to make sure that it is not harmed and that the development goes as planned and does not depart from the original plans.

Where such developments take place, the requirements are very specific to each individual site, so I shall ask English Heritage to write my hon. Friend a letter detailing precisely how it plans to engage with the development process in this case. If I describe generalities, that might not necessarily do the trick for this specific site, which will have its own idiosyncrasies. However, if I ask English Heritage to write to my hon. Friend to lay out precisely how it plans to engage with this process, he will have something in black and white, and he will be able to check whether it is being done. Equally, constituents and the Halesowen Abbey Trust will know what to expect from English Heritage, so that they can make sure that the development process is being conducted sympathetically and in a controlled fashion. I am sure that my hon. Friend, his constituents and I would all agree that that will be essential over the coming weeks and months as the development process moves forward.

My hon. Friend asked whether the Government believe that a significant change to an historic site, such as the conversion of nearby outbuildings for residential use, represented a material deterioration, conservation or an enhancement to the site in question. That is a tremendously important question generally and in the specific case of this site. It is undoubtedly true that any change or development can constitute a risk to a site of heritage importance. However, it is also true that sympathetic development, when done correctly, can be the saving of an awful lot of such sites. In general, English Heritage, other heritage bodies up and down the country and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport have found that it is far better to have a sympathetic site owner or manager, and a site that is in continuous use with a sustainable use going forward. That is simply because it then has a continuing purpose and is likely to be invested in as necessary, to ensure that the new and historical structures are well maintained.

I totally understand the point that my hon. Friend makes, but in this case there has been a lot of evidence over a long time of a lack of confidence on the part of the local community and, in particular, the Halesowen Abbey Trust, in the will to make the necessary changes and ensure that, where there is controlled development, it is done in a way that is suitable for the site and preserves its potential archaeological interest.

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. As I understand it, the plans that have just been approved were originally developed a couple of years ago, starting in 2008, in full consultation with English Heritage. It had extensive input into those plans and has indicated that it is comfortable with how the plans will treat the monument and the listed remains.

Of course, the question is not just whether the plans are sympathetically drawn up, and whether the intention is to use sensible materials that will frame the heritage parts of the site in an impressive and academically acceptable way, but whether those plans will genuinely be delivered, as the development process goes through. I take my hon. Friend’s point on that.

I shall come on to answer some of his questions about developments to the site that were made without planning permission and that needed retrospective planning permission. I hope that my answer to my hon. Friend’s question about controls over the development process and how English Heritage is planning to engage with those—and the fact that I am going to ask English Heritage to write to him with a list of how it is going to do that—will help to address both his concerns and those of local people. In the unlikely event that English Heritage does not live up to what it plans to do on that site during the development process, I am sure that he and the trust will be on its case and will contact me as necessary to ensure that there is no slippage or backsliding.

To pick up on the final point I was making in answer to the last question, it is better to have a living building that is being used in a sustainable fashion, provided that that is done sympathetically to the heritage asset concerned, than something that is unused and not cared for, that does not attract investment, and that is therefore unlikely to be maintained. That is something that we find across the country.

Last week I was lucky enough to visit some of the new developments taking place by King’s Cross station in north London, where a number of listed buildings are being incorporated into some stunning modern architecture. There is a wonderful juxtaposition of old and new; it is being done very carefully with a great deal of respect for the heritage assets. The future of those heritage assets will be hugely improved as a result of being brought back into use in a modern way. I hope that is a clear answer to my hon. Friend’s original question.

My hon. Friend asked whether the Government would support a decision by English Heritage not to prosecute the owner of an historic site for breaking the law, on the basis that it wanted to avoid upsetting the owner. He mentioned the case of the flood wall, but I understand that there have been other, smaller cases, too. I understand that English Heritage did consider prosecution and took the case to the Crown Prosecution Service, which indicated it would not be prepared to take forward the prosecution of Mr Tudor for the unauthorised works. That is not to say that it is never right to prosecute. In fact, English Heritage has prosecuted in the past, though not frequently because the cost is very high and, technically, achieving a positive result in court in these cases is hard. However, it has happened, and successfully. I do not think that there is any theoretical or practical obstacle to doing so, but it happens rarely.

Given that the CPS said it was reluctant to take the case forward because it felt that there was a low probability of success, I think English Heritage’s approach of saying that it needed to work constructively with the owner was probably the best opportunity in that specific option. That does not mean that it should not come down hard on examples of bad behaviour. On occasions, it is necessary, as the French said of the English Navy, to hang an admiral pour encourager les autres. It is important to make it clear that there is a line in the sand beyond which people should not go. The principle is clear and is as my hon. Friend describes.

My hon. Friend’s final question was whether we should introduce an independent review to check on the ability of English Heritage to uphold laws and regulations. I think that English Heritage is held in pretty high regard across the wider heritage community, if I can put it that way, although obviously no organisation is perfect. A lot of people, including within English Heritage, would say that they wanted it to improve in a number of ways. However, English Heritage, among others, also agrees that in the wake of the comprehensive spending review, like any other part of the public sector, it has to do more with less. At the moment it is busy re-organising in order to become more efficient and is cutting its cloth to fit, in the same way that everybody else has to. It is not pleasant or fun, but it has to make do, and is doing so professionally.

It is clear that, once the dust has settled, English Heritage will have to look at some of its current processes—for example, the listings process—to work out how to perform those statutory tasks in a way that is more efficient, faster and cheaper, while at the same time ensuring that it provides the important protection of heritage assets that my hon. Friend and I have been debating.

Again, I understand the point that my hon. Friend makes. Will he emphasise to English Heritage the importance of sites in areas such as Halesowen? If one mentions Halesowen heritage outside of Halesowen, people do not realise the rich tapestry of culture and heritage that there is there and in other areas of the black country. English Heritage should prioritise and give thought to the importance of monuments in places that are not typically thought of as traditional areas of English heritage.

I am happy to do so. My hon. Friend has touched on an important point, because heritage assets are wrongly viewed as a crumbling piece of an awkward obstacle to development. In most communities, they are rightly seen as huge assets from which the community can benefit. They make each community distinct and different, and keep us in touch with our local past. In many cases they are great sources of tourism income, too. I agree completely that there are a lot of opportunities there.

To conclude, English Heritage knows that it has to react to the recent comprehensive spending review by becoming more efficient, in the same way as many other bodies in the public sector. It is starting that remodelling, and I expect it to go a great deal further over the next months. I hope it will do so in a way that will please my hon. Friend. In the meantime, I will ask it to write to him with the details of how it proposes to protect this site.

Sitting suspended.